Blunted cortisol response to acute pre-learning stress prevents misinformation effect in a forced confabulation paradigm

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Research examining the effects of stress on false memory formation has been equivocal, partly because of the complex nature of stress-memory interactions. A major factor influencing stress effects on learning is the timing of stress relative to encoding. Previous work has shown that brief stressors administered immediately before learning enhance long-term memory. Thus, we predicted that brief stress immediately before learning would decrease participants' susceptibility to subsequent misinformation and reduce false memory formation. Eighty-four male and female participants submerged their hand in ice cold (stress) or warm (no stress) water for 3 min. Immediately afterwards, they viewed an 8-min excerpt from the Disney movie Looking for Miracles. The next day, participants were interviewed and asked several questions about the video, some of which forced them to confabulate responses. Three days and three weeks later, respectively, participants completed a recognition test in the lab and a free recall test via email. Our results revealed a robust misinformation effect, overall, as participants falsely recognized a significant amount of information that they had confabulated during the interview as having occurred in the original video. Stress, overall, did not significantly influence this misinformation effect. However, the misinformation effect was completely absent in stressed participants who exhibited a blunted cortisol response to the stress, for both recognition and recall tests. The complete absence of a misinformation effect in non-responders may lend insight into the interactive roles of autonomic arousal and corticosteroid levels in false memory development.

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